Phil Hawkins pauses.
Ten silent seconds slip by.
Eyebrows furrowed behind thin-rimmed glasses, Phil admits he doesn’t remember the last day he took off from helping Idaho’s veterans.
“Golly sakes … I would say … I don’t know what to say. I guess Norma, my wife and I, have a (camper), and we take it over to Island Park every year, so we have that,” he said.
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But even then, Norma said, Phil frets about being out of cellphone service and missing a call that could make a difference for a veteran in need.
“He worries about that,” Norma said. “He just loves the veterans so much. He puts his whole heart into everything he does, and I admire him for that. I respect him for that, so do our children.”
Phil, 73, retired in July as the volunteer coordinator at the Idaho State Veterans Home in Boise. After serving in the U.S. Army for 30 years and retiring as a command sergeant major, he spent 26 years working at the veterans home.
Rarely a day goes by, however, that he isn’t still at the home, organizing Christmas clothing drives, shopping for the home’s canteen or simply serving meals to the men and women who have become such a part of him.
A PERSONAL MISSION
Why does Phil do so much for so many?
“Oh, two reasons, probably,” Phil said.
One changed the course of his life.
Phil and Norma, who have been married for 54 years, faced the death of their oldest daughter, Vicki, in 1987 when she was 23. She died a week after giving birth to her second child. An unusual infection took her life, Phil said.
“A lot of times parents who lose a child end up separating because they don’t understand each other’s pain,” Norma said. “We really worked hard at that. We talked about how I hurt as a mother and how he hurt as a father.”
Phil took up running in 1978 to help him stop smoking, an activity that now keeps him close to his daughter. Even ankle replacement surgery a few years ago hasn’t stopped him from waking up at 4:30 a.m. almost every day to take to the Boise Foothills with his trekking poles to “go talk to her.”
“I have this little space, a little Vicki bush up there for my daughter,” he said. “I tell her what I’ve done today.”
An exchange about mundane, everyday life doesn’t cut it for Phil. It’s what he’s really done, how he’s made a difference in someone else’s life, that he has to tell her.
After that, Phil says he hopes she’s having a good day.
“And I keep on moving.”
The second reason Phil serves so many is because of his gratitude for those who have served him.
“I was suffering from wounds and Agent Orange in San Francisco in ’86-’87,” he said, “It was six, seven months all together. Being so sick and dealing with those things wasn’t so good, so when I got to where I was well, I just felt like I needed to do something for veterans because they had taken such good care of me in the hospital.”
Phil, along with retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Milt Smith, like to joke that they continue to give back to the veterans home because they know that someday they’ll need someone at the veterans home to take care of them.
The two were in the Boise Costco less than 23 minutes Tuesday morning, but they said hello to no fewer than 10 people who knew Phil by name.
Gathering items for the veterans home’s canteen, a small shop that provides snacks and a place for residents to chat about their day, the two are a well-oiled machine weaving through the store.
“Wait awhile, though. It’ll break down,” Phil said with a sly smile. “We’re lucky people feel sorry for us.”
Gearing up for the outreach clothing drive for the homeless, Phil is in Costco nearly every day in December, scouring for long johns, socks, gloves and wrapping paper.
“Someone needs to remind him he’s retired,” Smith said. “He’s a good man.”
Most Costco employees stop to chat, give Phil a hug or even demand he come through their line to show his receipt at the door.
Phil usually works well into the night every year on Dec. 23, collecting donations and wrapping presents for veterans to deliver by Christmas Eve morning.
“Sometimes we get some young kids too — young sailors, young Marines,” Phil said. “These guys can come back with a lot of issues. We want to make sure they know we care about them and look forward to helping them any way we can.”
Throughout the rest of the year, there’s no veterans-related cause in the Treasure Valley that Phil doesn’t try to support.
“His heart never left the military,” Norma said. “After 9/11, he decided he was going to go back in. They were bringing a lot of retirees back. And he applied to go back in, and a lady called from back East to ask him if he was crazy. He was getting up there in age, and she couldn’t believe he would reapply.”
Along with founder Jim Kern, Phil helps coordinate donations to Brave Hearts Idaho, an organization founded in 2008 that collects donations for $500 grants to help veterans who are facing financial crisis.
He is a longtime member of the American Legion, serving as the post commander for Boise’s Post 151 for years. Next year, he hopes to volunteer more of his time on the statewide level for the Legion.
Phil also emcees the Idaho Veterans Olympics, an event that celebrated its 30th year this September. He rarely misses an opportunity to emcee similar events in Pocatello and Lewiston.
“By the time I get to the podium, I’m just in tears because it’s so emotional meeting all those World War II guys,” he said.
A MINOR SETBACK
Phil said he tries to get a break every now and then.
“It’s hard for me because I picked up cancer this year,” he said.
A lymphoma diagnosis in February — because of Phil’s exposure to the toxic chemical Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam — was nothing to worry about, he said.
“I was in that stuff constantly,” he said. “I was a demolition guy, and when you’re a demo guy, you’re in there with the booby traps and all that. I was a tunnel rat, so I was down inside all of that stuff.”
After serving two tours in Vietnam, receiving two Purple Hearts and surviving a helicopter crash, nothing really shakes him.
“I’m doing OK,” he insists. “(Cancer) kind of changed me. It all happened so fast.”
On Thursday, Phil got the news that he isn’t showing any signs of cancer after rounds of chemotherapy and doesn’t have to go in for another checkup for six months.
The news couldn’t come at a better time.
On Christmas Eve, Phil will start the marathon process of delivering gifts and clothing to about 500 homeless veterans and their families, as well as others facing homelessness in the community. He’ll be at the veterans home all Christmas Eve, ensuring this country’s heroes are remembered with gifts and a thank you, before he settles in to his South Boise house to celebrate with his own family.
He’ll be back Christmas Day to serve meals at the veterans home, too.
“I’m not really slowing down,” Phil said. “I’m just working smarter now.”